NEW DELHI – It is a bit of a cliche to say that Indian society is in the throes of change these days. But it appears that the more things change, the more they remain the same.
A court verdict in the southern state of Tamil Nadu on Monday seems to conclude that adult couples who have slept together should be considered legally akin to married. The judge directed a man to pay alimony to a woman who claimed she had lived with him for five years as his wife and gave birth to two children. The man, however, said they were not legally married.
Justice C. S. Karnan said in his order, "If any couple choose to consummate their sexual cravings, then that act becomes a total commitment with adherence to all consequences that may follow, except on certain exceptional considerations.”
The judge added that the rituals of marriage, such as going around the ceremonial fire, garlands and rings, were only for the satisfaction of society. He said that “both the petitioner and the respondent lived together as spouses and begot two children."
The verdict left many Indians confused on Tuesday – was this forward-looking or prudish? Did it allow unmarried couples to enjoy the rights of the formally wed, or did it force them into unwanted legal obligations? On Twitter and television debates, the verdict was a subject of ridicule and criticism.
The news television channel NDTV 24x7 called the ruling “part liberal, part archaic.” Some studio guests called it “Victorian” because it equates sex with marriage. Others said the decision recognized the rights of live-in partners, and another said it will empower rural women who are lured into marriages and abandoned.
On Twitter, the sarcasm was merciless. The hashtag #madrasHC or Madras High Court trended all day.
Indian courts have been trying to keep up with social changes over the past few years. Rulings have slowly begun recognizing the growing trend of live-in couples in Indian cities. In 2010, the nation's Supreme Court surprised many when the panel of judges said that living together was not an offense but a “right to life.”
But Tuesday’s ruling confused many. Young Indians said it put all the burdens of marriage on premarital sex. Many who are romantically involved may not want to wed.
The ruling may also reinforce the practice, in some rural areas, of forcing rape victims to marry their rapists as an out-of-court solution.
The news portal Firstpost.com said the ruling validates live-in relationships and could be “groundbreaking” in both its use and misuse. “It’s not often that a High Court judgment can be used as both a punch line and a pickup line,” the author said.